Re: Documentation not as important anymore?

Subject: Re: Documentation not as important anymore?
From: Mike Pope <mikep -at- ASYMETRIX -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 29 Apr 1994 17:23:00 PDT

I think everyone is right on this issue. I've worked in tech support at
times, and I know that some people will call tech support even if the answer
to their question is printed right on the cover of their manual. For some
people -- and especially if it's free -- talking to a live person is just
the way they prefer to get info. (Compare: how much of what's taught in
classrooms is also available in books? Probably all of it. But it's a
different experience to have someone explain it to you.) As a little
anecdotal note, I worked for a company once that made the error of using the
word "mitigate" in a manual somewhere. Sure enough, people called tech
support to ask what "mitigate" meant.

Lori Lathrop is also right about indexes, and though she doesn't explicitly
note this, her point applies to online Help indexing as well. I have little
patience for poorly-indexed OLH myself, because I only ever use it when I'm
already irritable and cranky anyway. <g>

But for the information to be included in a thorough index, it has to be in
manual in the first place. So we still have to start with good quality,
well-organized and well-designed docs. Sometimes it's very difficult to get
into a manual the information that users need.

To stay on a personal tack here, a lot of my work has been with programming
environments. It's very difficult, especially in a 1.0 release, to
anticipate all the wild and wacky ways that people will think up to use your
software. So many calls to tech support are really "algorithm" sorts of
questions: "how do I use your product to accomplish XYZ?". Unless XYZ is a
pretty common task, it's likely not explicitly documented. As a sort-of
analogy, suppose you were new to word processing and wanted to create a
brochure: in most docs, there's no procedure called "creating a brochure",
though there probably are tasks for "creating columns", "setting up page
layout", or, you know, the underlying tactics. This is a gap often filled by
third-party books ("Programming Secrets for AcmeWare"), not that that's an
excuse for the manufacturer not to try to accommodate this need.

The drop-off in concern for high-quality docs mentioned in the survey may
also be an issue of standardization, as someone else might have mentioned,
in a couple of ways. First, UI is getting more standard, so it isn't as if
people have to learn from scratch with each product. But there may also be
an issue that as more people become computer-literate, fewer people need the
type of thorough documentation ("how to turn on your computer") that was
once necessary. Anybody read the manual that came with their car lately?
This would be a "standardization of users", heh-heh.

Ok, that was fun. Sorry for the long message.

-- Mike Pope
mikep -at- asymetrix -dot- com

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